If ever I was thinking about my photographyjournalism career, the subject of this blog, it’s in the wake of my return from a two-week trip to Sweden, my family’s Fatherland. Accordingly, I’m hoping to follow this with a photo essay of my adventures, but for now a text recap will have to do. First for some background.
This is the story as I understand it–which may, of course, be completely off.
At some point between 1920 and 1925, my father’s grandfather emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. His name was Axel Svensson, married to Gerda Svensson. One of their children was my grandmother, Ruth (Svensson) Jones. Axel grew up in Trollhättan, Sweden, a town built on four pillars of civilization: a hydropower plant; a manmade waterfall that flows at 15:00 every day in the summer (to support that power plant); a series of canal locks, both historic and functional; and Saab manufacturing.
One of Axel’s brothers, Johan, had a daughter who had a son (Kent) who had a daughter. Well, three daughters and two sons. One of those daughters is Sofia Eriksson. I began talking with Sofia about a year ago after my Dad suggested I contact his sister, who had stayed with Sofia about 20 years ago on her visit to Sweden.
And as a side note: I should say, my interest in Sweden spans more than just family ties. Of course, my interest in metal bands like In Flames, The Haunted and Opeth draws me to the Nordic tundra, but there’s also the thriving social democracy and (comparitavely) booming economy. Yes, you can have both. Summerhouses and saunas aren’t status symbols, but are relatively common ways of life. So is expenses-paid healthcare. (As a side note within a side note, while we were there, my second-cousin needed an emergency room trip because of a stomach ache. They arrived back home from the visit sooner than we would’ve even been seen by a doctor in the States, and they had no bill to follow up on.) To say the least, I’m envious. At any rate, back to the main plot.
So, my Aunt Barbara got me in touch with Sofia on Facebook. I learned she’s a journalist and has an interest in politics. Of course! It’s in the blood. Because my fiancée, Joe, is a metalhead himself and has also had an interest in visiting Sweden, we started planning almost right away.
We arrived at the airport in Gothenburg (Göteborg), where Sofia and her family live, on a Monday.
Wait! First you need to know something. The word “lagom.” It (fittingly) has no English translation, but means something like not-too-much, not-t00-little. Just enough for all. Medium. Just right. A Goldilocks kind of tale. The term comes from the Viking practice of sharing mead from a drinking horn. Each warrior was to take just his fair share — not too much, not too little — so that everyone could have a drink. This has transformed in to this fantastic culture of modesty, humility, sharing, respect and kindness (although you may think the Vikings are an unlikely source for this!) that the Swedes themselves seem not to realize they have. I’ll give you a hint when this is represented in our travels.
Jetlagged and sleepy, Sofia drove us home — but we conquered, and spent the day roaming the second-largest city in Sweden, second only to… well, you know the answer already.
It. Was. Amazing. Between the exquisite architecture, the historic sculptures in every square, the canals, and the beaming kindness of the people, I was floored. The day marked the beginning of the Gothenburg Culture Festival, so there was much fun and food to be had.
Let’s set aside the fact that absolutely everything (and almost everyone) was stunningly beautiful, the cultural acceptance of metal music was astounding. We stumbled upon Evergrey, a Swedish metal band popular even in the states, playing on an outdoor stage as a part of a festival put on, funded and run by the state. (Lagom!)Further, the audience varied widely in its demographics–from obvious metalheads to 50-year-old women, to dads holding small children. And everyone seemed to be having a good time. (Lagom!) It was sociologically mindblowing.
But we had noticed something different on the Swedish metal front before. Each time we told someone that In Flames, a band from Gothenburg, was one of our favorite bands, we heard either, “Oh, cool!” or “Their music isn’t really my thing, but that’s great.” Either way, everyone we met had heard of them, and everyone appreciated their art and valued their musical contributions — even if they weren’t metalheads. (Lagom!) In the states, (Now’s the time to check your musical prejudices.) we get mostly “Who?” and “Oh, that stuff’s just noise.”
Of course, everything was more expensive for two reasons. 1. The value of the USD is laughable. 2. It’s a tourist destination. We definitely sought out traditional Swedish treats, but they were often at pricey restaurants. And we were looking for the cheapest grub we could get! We saw hot dog (korv) stands everywhere, and generally could grab one for about 35 kronor (approx $5. For a hot dog. Yeah.) The magic came when we discovered the tunnbrödsrulle, or flat bread roll. With a price of anywhere up to $10 USD, these blue-collar korv creations were the treat I treasured the most in my time there.
The tunnbrödsrulle is basically a hot dog, mashed potatoes and other fixin’s wrapped in a sheet of flatbread. You start with the flatbread (a special Swedish sort called tunnbröd), spoon on two generous scoops of mashed potatoes, then stick in a grilled hot dog or sausage. Add toppings like onion, tomato, shredded lettuce, ketchup, mustard, and majonnasgurka (sweet relish mixed with mayonnaise). Even add in some raksallad (shrimp salad) or pulled pork. Then wrap the flatbread into a cone shape and hold together with foil. Good luck with that last part — it’ll be bursting at the seams.
And now for the CliffNotes version of some additional of the Gothenburg-area highlights.
- Discovered Mustasch, a fantastic Swedish hard rock band, and saw them in concert as a part of the Culture Festival.
- Explored some great metal/rock bars and the iconic Gothenburg metal scene. I recommend Rockbaren, Sticky Fingers & 2112, a swanky restaurant and bar founded and owned by Bjorn and Peter of In Flames.
- Met a lot of fantastic people, including three of my other Swedish cousins and my Swedish uncle, all thrice removed (I think). That also includes Christo Willesen, Mr. Gay Sweden, who came in second (to Italy) for Mr. Gay Europe. He was our waiter at Bee, which has absolutely DELICIOUS food.
- Visited Marstrand during the sailing competition Match Cup Sweden to see the historic fortress Carlsten. The tour featured an in-character guide and some hilarious stories.
- Went to IKEA… obviously.
- Toured the beautiful Gothenburg archipelago by boat (free with public transit pass!). These tiny islands were astounding. With no cars (just bikes and motorbikes), breathtaking landscape and quaint cottage-style homes, we felt like we were in a fairy tale… or the Lord of the Rings movies.
- Spent some quality time with my Swedish famliy — Sofia & Håkan and their children Ella (13), Liv (11) & Harry (3).
For one day, Sofia, Harry, Joe & I ventured from Gothenburg to Trollhättan, had lunch at a lovely cafe by the oldest set of canal locks, and met even more of my wonderful family. We were interviewed by a young journalist and appeared in the local paper a few days later. I stood in the very spot where my great-grandfather Axel’s house once stood (and is now a bank’s parking lot). But I had a main mission as well.
No matter where we lived, the kitchen in my family’s home has always donned two painted wooden plates. At the bottom of both is written “Trollhättan.” One is an image of a winding road on a hill next to a river, an iron bridge in the distance. The other is of the famed hydropower plant, the river and mountainsides framing the iconic view. My dad sent us there to recreate these paintings in photos. And we succeeded! (Photo proof will be in an update.) It was an all-around breathtaking experience.
After a week (and weekend) in Gothenburg, we hopped a Monday morning plane for a half-hour flight to Stockholm, a 300-mile journey Northeast.
The night before, Sofia helped us book our stay on the Gustaf af Klint, a docked ship that serves as a hostel, hotel, restaurant and bar in the Slussen area of Stockholm, a short walk from Old Town.
The first night, we had a private cabin with two bunked beds, a sink and storage. From the common area, we could see the beautiful architecture of historic Old Town across the water. (Stockholm is a city built on a series of islands and peninsulas that you travel between via boat, bus, subway or foot.) For the next three nights, we stayed with a fantastic, young French couple (who invited us for a stay “any time” at their home in the heart of Paris… French lagom?).
The last night we spent in the dormitory, an open room with 16 bunked beds linked to more rooms with more beds. At first it was nerve-racking to have no locked luggage storage, until you realize that everyone is in this together. (Lagom!) Don’t mind the movies, kids, hostels are a great way to save money (for us it came out to $30 a night), there’s almost always an option of a private room for a slightly higher price, and once you experience the lagom culture, you realize that life is so different in Sweden (and, I assume, most of Europe), that you have little to worry about.
Anyway, Stockholm is lovely, but had many, many more tourists. Everywhere we went were giant tour groups from Spain, Italy, Germany or France. The default language, especially in Old Town, is English. It’s just easier knowing that most people who visit your shop or restaurant aren’t going to speak Swedish. In Gothenburg, people spoke to us (well, mostly me, since my Swedishness is evident) in Swedish first, until we, disheartened, told them we didn’t speak it. Luckily, of course, almost all Swedes speak English and were happy to continue the conversation accordingly. Swedes who might not speak great English: Those older than 50, those younger than 15, and those who immigrated there.
It’s also hard to get traditional Swedish food there unless you know where to go (except tunnbrödsrulle and meatballs, of course!) because it’s a very international city. Although I have to say, the Indian, Italian and Mediterranean food we ate there was superb.
Oh! Did I mention that Swedes are ridiculously stylish? J. Crew ads come to life. Joe, a tall brunette, said he didn’t fit in because his hair was dark. (I, a redhead, was told many times how Swedish I look! Yay!) I said, “At least you’re tall enough to fit in here!” I felt like a child. Anyway, we saw hardly anyone who was young and overweight. Women and men look like they came straight out of fashion magazines. It’s all practical clothing, nothing outrageous, just… so… perfect. Google Image “Swedish street style.” People just walk around like that. I swear I didn’t see a pair of sweatpants the whole time.
Some brief highlights of our Stockholm leg:
- Fought with a waiter at Michelangelo’s Italian restaurant because the pizza was undercooked. I still recommend the restaurant to anyone looking for some delicious food and interesting atmosphere. I also learned that whatever I thought a margherita pizza was, I was wrong.
- Totally nerded out about government. No, seriously. Parliamentary monarchies are secretly genius ways of maintaining national pride and unity while allowing for the criticism of functional leaders (Lagom!), even in a time of royal scandal. Sweden is the perfect example. Of course, Stockholm is home to the royal palace, the Riksdag (parliament) & many other exciting political institutions & museums.
- Toured the Stockholm archipelago. Because Sweden’s rich & royal flocked to Stockholm, which was settled and founded first as well, these islands aren’t as remote or fairy tale as Gothenburg’s. Mostly they’re topped the old mansions of history’s rich Swedes, re-purposed to buildings more useful to society. (Lagom!) One is now an orphanage. It’s still a nice boat tour to take for a day on the water.
- and walked,
- and walked, and walked.
- Walked around Nybroplan, the Manhattan of Stockholm. It’s full of designer stores with Europe’s latest fashions. As you may have guessed, we were out of our element… so we moved on.
- Visited the Vasa Museum, a perfectly preserved, resurrected sunken 17th Century ship with a hilarious story (that you can Google).
- Visited Skansen, a zoo-meets-outdoor-museum and saw many Nordic animals like elk (moose, not North American elk), reindeer, wolves, wolverines, owls & foxes. There were other cool exhibits, but we were really tired. Sorry.
- Visited Aquaria and saw some exciting aquatic life.
- Saw a million other museums. Visited many bars. Met many more wonderful people. Did so many things I can hardly remember them now!
All in all, I can’t wait to go back. I’ve taken so much from this trip — t-shirts and souvenirs, but more importantly, I’ve taken away the lagom culture, and plan to live my daily life remembering others and being grateful and humble — more than ever.
The flight home was long and sad, and fittingly, we arrived at the Washington, D.C. airport in the pouring rain, the beginnings of Hurricane Irene, just days after an earthquake hit the East Coast and back home in Pennsylvania. Sigh.
The moral of all this:
If you want to return from a trip grateful for what you have back home in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. … Don’t go to Sweden. Try Bulgaria instead.
Stay tuned for a photo essay on my Swedish adventures, coming soon.